iFi Audio hip-dac Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier Review
David Price meets a seriously impressive new travelling companion…
Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier
In the weird and wonderful world of head-fi, the coolest looking bit of kit is king. That confers royal status on iFi Audio’s new hip-dac at the very least, because its design, packaging and performance is positively aristocratic compared to many of its price rivals.
This is a compact design that’s fashioned in the style of a hip flask. Those of us of a certain age with a taste for the old ‘giggle juice’ while out-and-about will instantly recognise the look, and love the copper-coloured volume control knob which of course mimics the spout of the aforementioned firewater dispenser. The petrol blue aluminium body is lovely, although possibly not to everyone’s taste.
Once you’ve got over the novelty of the design, you’re reminded that this is actually a functional product. On top to the left of the volume control are headphone EQ and XBass buttons, and to the right are 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced headphone outputs. At the other end are a male USB 3.0 A input and a USB C power socket. iFi bundles USB-C OTG and USB-A to USB-C cables, but Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adaptor is needed for iOS devices.
Inside, the hip-dac sports a rechargeable battery offering up to twelve hours playback via its 32-bit/384kHz-capable Burr-Brown DAC; it also crunches DSD64, 128 and 256 and even MQA. DSD handling is claimed to be native and bit-perfect. Twin LEDs either side of the volume control glow green for 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz sampling rates, only changing colour for higher levels. I’d have liked to have seen different colours for 44/48 and 88/96, though.
iFi’s GMT femto clocking system has custom firmware which can be upgraded at a later date. Selected components are used, including a custom iFi OV op-amp, ceramic capacitors and power supply IC. The power amp stage puts out a claimed 400mW. Measuring 102x70x14mm and weighing 125g, it’s heavier and fiddlier than super-small designs like Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic, but usefully more pocketable than the likes of Chord’s Mojo. I mainly used it with my Apple MacBook Pro notebook running Audirvana and Qobuz, with both Jays’ cheap-but-good v-Jays headphones and Oppo’s high-end PM1s.
Impossible to fault at the price, iFi’s new hip-dac does a lot of what the pricier designs do while costing a lot less. Its clean, crisp, detailed and open sound has oodles of grip, dynamics and insight. Feed it some classic rock from The Who for example, and Won’t Get Fooled Again sounds powerful, open and expressive. There’s a super-taut feel to the proceedings, as it zooms in on the sublime drum work and those super-syncopated lead guitar stylings. The iFi’s grip, allied to its excellent midband detail and impressive dynamics all work together to give a deliciously visceral feel.
Tonally it’s smooth but with a subtle accent on the upper midband. I found Julie Tzuke’s Welcome to the Cruise just slightly brightly lit; it was never unpleasant though. Indeed the hip-dac helped me hear how beautiful her voice was, along with the song’s swish production effects like the subtle vocal reverb. And it can really belt out dynamics when called upon so to do; it gets loud at the drop of a hat and stays cleaner than you might think.
It’s churlish to complain at this price, but some may not love its rather dry bass. Kraftwerk’s Tour de France is a clean, and clinical recording and while the hip-dac made this great electro track huge fun, it didn’t quite have the fulsome texture than I’m used to via the Chord Mojo for example. The result is that if you’re a basshead who craves quantity not quality, you may wish for something thicker and fatter down below. Ultimately this is a matter of both taste and headphone matching.
IFi’s new hip-dac is as fast, punchy and dynamic as you could hope for at this price, and a world better than most. Indeed the strange thing for me was that I often found myself criticising it, then having to remind myself that it costs one-eleventh of the cost of the Chord Hugo 2 I usually use! It really is good enough to stand in the company of far pricier products – and thus comes heartily recommended.
For more information, visit iFi Audio.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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